High School Hero 

Northwestern High School, Detroit Michigan

Detroit Northwestern High
School, ca. 1930

Ward enrolled in Detroit’s Northwestern High School, then a predominantly white school, in 1926. He quickly established himself as a star on the football field, in track, and in the classroom. As a freshman, he finished second in the nation in the high jump.

He twice set interscholastic world records in the event, clearing 6 feet 6-1/2 inches as a senior. He set state records and won individual state titles in the high and low hurdles and the high jump. 


In football, Ward was twice named all-city end and was a unanimous choice for the 1930 all-state team. Occasionally he was used as a ball carrier, often with spectacular results. Against Detroit Central in 1930, he scored on a 40-yard run off-tackle, a 22-yard end-around, and a 35-yard run.

Northwestern High School football team, 1930. Ward, 2nd row, far left, was one of three Black players.  Coach Sam Bishop is behind Ward.

Willis Ward playing football for Northwestern High School in Detroit

Willis Ward playing football for Northwestern High School, ca. 1930

Newspaper Clipping of a photo of Willis Ward competing in the Hurdles, 1931 Detroit city championship

Willis Ward winning the 110-yard high hurdles, City High School championships, 1931

State and City Champions

Ward led Northwestern to the State Class A Track and Field Championships in 1929 and 1930. In 1931, the Detroit City Championship Meet was held the same day as the state meet, so Ward was only able to compete in the former. He led Northwestern to its ninth consecutive city title, scoring 15 points with wins in both hurdles and the high jump.

After his final high school meet, the Detroit Times observed: “It is Willis Ward, called the greatest athlete to compete in Detroit schools, making his bow at the end of his high school career.”  

A Top Student

Willis Ward in his North-
western letter sweater,
ca. 1931

Ward graduated near the top of his class—at a time when Northwestern rivaled Cass Tech, Detroit’s premier high school, in academic standing. Ward was nominated for senior class president, but withdrew and served as class treasurer instead. A classmate was quoted, “He could have owned the school if he'd wanted to.”

Ward recalled that he had always assumed he would go to college, though he would be the first in his family to do so. Northwestern coach Sam Bishop and other helpful teachers recognized his academic talent and guided him to the college prep program.

The only question was where he would go. And since he wanted to play football, the University of Michigan did not seem to be an option for an African American athlete.

Group photograph of the Northwestern High School Student Council. Willis Ward is in the back row, 4th from left.

Northwestern High School
student council, 1931

Group photograph of the 1928 Northwestern High School Track team. Willis Ward is in the back row, center.

Northwestern High School
track team, 1928

"Ward sets world interscholastic high
jump record," Chicago Defender, 1931

Willis Ward on the Northwestern High School track team, 1930

Sources: John Behee, Willis Ward, Football, 1932–1934; Track, 1933–1935 [interviews], 1970;  Willis Ward papers (Detroit Public Library); Detroit NewsDetroit Free PressNorwester yearbook. 

Prev Next